James Cameron wanted to get close. Really close. He thinks all those other 3-D performance movies--Glee, Justin Bieber's, Katy Perry's--offer merely a simulacrum of a live performance. "I asked, Why aren't we giving the movie audience the experience they can't get? Even if you're there at the theater, you're not onstage," says the director of Titanic and Avatar. So Cameron, who is an executive producer of Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away but also worked as a cameraman in a safety harness 70 feet in the air, got so close to the performers that at one point the star of the movie, acrobat Erica Linz, kicked a camera lens.
Worlds Away (in theaters Dec. 21) isn't quite the documentary of Cirque's Las Vegas shows that Cameron originally planned. Instead, director Andrew Adamson (of the first two Shreks and the first two Chronicles of Narnia) stitched the circus scenes together with a flimsy Alice in Wonderland--ish plot in which Linz falls down a hole and chases a male aerialist, identified as the Aerialist (Igor Zaripov), through surreal circus worlds until (unimportant spoiler alert!) she eventually kisses him as fireworks explode.
None of this requires much talking. "I think it's good for us that The Artist was such a recent success," says the 4 ft. 11 in., Colorado-born Linz, 30, who calls herself an "actor-bat." She has been in Cirque shows ever since she flew to Las Vegas to audition the day after she finished high school, in 2001. "You don't need words to tell a love story. It's a story told with eyes and bodies." This makes sense if you have a Cirque du Soleil performer's body. In fact, Linz informs me that when two Cirque performers are very much in love and are ready to start a family, what they do is called the "gymnasty" and that it is indeed more interesting than the way non-Cirque performers do it.
Adamson was able to use the Canadian troupe's stages, equipment, costumes and makeup. "It would have been a $300 million film otherwise. If I said, 'I need to create this thing that's a swimming pool with a mechanical floor,' the studio would have laughed me out of the room," he says. Adamson and Cameron learned to set up shots quickly and use very few takes, since they could shoot just on days off between the live Vegas shows and since even world-class contortionists, acrobats and men on fire can do their routines only a few times before becoming exhausted.
Exhaustion was not a problem for the two gigantic Samoan fire dancers who grabbed Cameron's walkie-talkie and threw him in his hotel pool to commemorate their three long days of shooting. Though they forgot to grab his cell phone, Cameron was smiling as he walked back to his hotel room in his soaked clothes. "Doesn't everyone want to join the circus at some point in his life?" he asks after telling this story. Before I can answer, he yells, "Hell, yeah!"
Actually, no. When I saw the circus as a kid, I thought, This looks like the kind of dangerous, smelly, itinerant lifestyle that leads to unsatisfactory short-term relationships. But after seeing this gorgeous movie, I understood Cameron's point about its being more impressive from up close. So I wanted to get as close as I could.